The Economy is Doing Fine, It’s Just the People That Aren’t

L. Street

the eve of the millennial elections, set to occur in the persistent glow of a
record-setting economic expansion, Americans are being told that they’ve
“never had it so good.” The key evidence for this common elite judgment is
a plethora of stunning data on America’s rising tide of affluence. As the Chicago
recently reported, “the average size of a new home has expanded
from 1,500 square feet to 2,190 square feet, and the number of cars has risen
from one car for every two Americans age 16 or older to one car for each
driving-age individual. The number of Americans taking cruises each year has
risen from 500,000 to 6,5 million; the production of recreational vehicles has
soared from 3,000 to 239,000; and the number of amusement parks has leaped
from 363 to 1,164. We are attending more symphonies, plays, concerts, and
sporting events, buying more boats and loading up on electronics, from cell
phones and computers to video recorders and microwave ovens. The list goes on
and on.” Citing these and other statistics of euphoric consumerism, the
Dallas Federal Reserve Bank’s chief economist Michael Cox told the Tribune,
“every aspect of life [in America] is better.”

to draw election-year meaning from this “better life,” some journalists
and pundits see it as the main reason that Americans seem uninterested in the
presidential campaign. In an age of deep material satisfaction and relative
peace, the argument goes, there are few significant issues dividing the
American people. According to the Pew Center, voter turnout will be low in
November because prosperity has made Americans content with the status quo.
Political indifference and superficial elections are the price we pay for
being so happy.

Boom and Social Recession

problem is that American’s aren’t really all that joyful, historically
speaking. According to surveys conducted by the University of Michigan and the
National Opinion Research Center, levels of happiness and unhappiness in the
United States have remained essentially constant for the last 40 years.
Retired Yale political scientist Michael Lane, author of The Loss of
Happiness in Market Democracies
(2000), finds that Americans today are no
happier than in 1948, when average per capita income in the United States was
one-third of its present level. He reports an advancing wave of American
sadness, pointing to increasing clinical depression, widespread distrust, and
declining ties between individuals and families, friends, and community. His
concerns are echoed by social-psychology professor David Myers in his The
American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in a Land of Plenty
(2000). “Despite
increasing affluence,” writes Myers, “Americans are becoming more
miserable.” Myers concludes that Americans are mired in a “social
recession” in the middle of an economic boom. These findings call to mind
the purported and notorious comment of a Brazilian general in 1970. Reflecting
on Brazil’s “economic miracle,” the general, by Noam Chomsky’s recent
recollection, said that “the economy’s doing fine, it’s just the people
that aren’t.”


Bad Culture

to explain mass melancholy in the midst of America’s supposed prosperity?
Cox is incapable of grasping the possibility that there might be more to
life than the quest for material goods. He can only wonder, “Is it just
human nature to complain even when things are good?”

A different
answer is proposed by cultural conservative Edward Bennett, Reagan’s former
education secretary and father of the moralistic “Index of Leading Cultural
Indicators.” Bennett thinks that Americans are sad because they are
experiencing affluence within the context of a culture dominated by the
excessive materialism and radical individualism of the horrid 1960s. For
Bennett, “it’s the culture, stupid,” and that culture is very, very bad,
producing an epidemic of divorce, illegitimacy, drug usage, crime,
hyper-sexualized media, single-parent families, violence, disrespect for
elites, and general narcissism. An expression of this bad culture, Bennett
argued in The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American
(1999), was Americans’ “failure” to back the
Republican campaign to impeach the president. According to Bennett, this
scandalous dereliction was based partly on the dangerous idea that a booming
economy excuses the president’s moral shortcomings. Bennett bitterly
described Americans’ thinking in the following terms: “If the people are
prosperous, the president must be doing a good job.”

But of course
Bennett was too quick in his judgment, which he shares with both Cox and
Clinton, that American capitalism was making “the people” prosperous.
Beneath the booming Dow and rising GDP, the U.S. economy in the year
Bennett’s book came out generated the second highest poverty rate and the
worst mal-distributions of wealth and income in the industrialized world.
Twenty percent of America’s children lived under the poverty level while the
top 1 percent of the population owned nearly 40 percent of the country’s net
worth. Meanwhile, Americans grumbled with reason about chronic overwork and
about the domination of their political system by the nation’s increasingly
wealthy economic elite. This list, too, goes on and on.

Anti-Modernist Explanation

Zola’s Germinal, the wealthy but miserable company manager Hennenbeau
finds his mansion besieged by angry workers screaming, “Bread, bread, we
want bread!” “Idiots!,” mutters Hennenbeau, “do you think I’m happy?
Do you think that’s enough?” Hennebau’s line provides a useful
introduction to a better interpretation of Myers’s “American paradox.”

A standard
sociological explanation repeats the established truisms that money can’t
buy you happiness and that modern society is alienating. As any social
psychology 201 student should know on final exam day, money offers diminished
happiness returns once people attain enough to escape poverty. Money boosts
the morale of the impoverished but people’s sense of well-being levels off
once they exit the realm of hardship.

At the same
time, the quest for money and related accouterments is alienating. As has been
documented in a long tradition of sociological literature that dates at least
from David Reisman’s The Lonely Crowd, Americans drive themselves to
despair and loneliness with their pursuit of material goods and social status
in the corporate state. Working long and speeded-up hours for distant
corporate overlords in electronic offices that are two traffic jams removed
from solitary pseudo-communities, Americans feel overextended and alone. Cut
off from family and other basic support networks, their lives seem drained of
existential meaning. They seek human connectedness through the virtual
electronic community. The unsatisfying result—an increase, not a reduction,
of anxiety—is predictable. Prozac and other mood-altering substances arrive
to adjust alienated masses to the shocking disjuncture between human need and
modern (or it is post-modern?) reality. The modern (bureaucratic and
capitalist) society has bred the “disenchantment of the world” prophesied
by that precocious post-modernist Max Weber.

This is the
basic thesis of Adbuster gurus Kalle Lasn and Bruce Grierson in a
recent Utne Reader article titled “America the Blue.” “What’s
the point,” they ask, “of living in the most dynamic and affluent nation
on earth if you’re feeling sad and anxious a lot of the time?” For Lasn
and Grierson, “the modern world” may have brought “unprecedented levels
of prosperity” but it “is responsible for the current epidemic of
sadness” in America. Things are better, they suggest, in less prosperous and
less modern regions of the planet. With no apparent discomfort over national
and cultural differences in mental health definition and monitoring, they
report that “depression in China is three times less common than in the
West. Worldwide,” they claim, “depression is increasing most quickly among
the young and well off.”

But like
Bennett’s reactionary cultural thesis, this explanation tends to leave out
the significant number of people living on the razor’s edge, materially
speaking, in “the most affluent nation on earth.” The anti-modernist
interpretation too often shares the cultural conservatives’ false assumption
that America is a “land of plenty” for all of its inhabitants. At its
worst, their thesis rationalizes existing class and global inequalities by
seeming to uphold the virtue of poverty against the spiritual hollowness of
comfort. Of course, few alienated, affluent anti-modernists would trade places
with the poor and the risk of suffering from post-materialist melancholy is
one that most poor people would be willing to take if given the chance.

Social-Democratic Alternative

of which creates an interesting opening for Fordham University sociologist
Marc Miringoff’s take on American life and politics at millennium’s turn.
For the last 13 years, Miringoff and his fellow researchers at Fordham’s
Institute for Innovation in Social Policy have been tracking what they call
the social health of the United States. “If we closely monitor economic
events by means of such measures as the GDP and the Dow Jones Average, if we
even track the weather and the results of professional sports on a daily
basis,” asks Miringoff, “should we not be monitoring just as carefully the
combined impact of such problems as infant mortality, teen suicide, poverty,
and the availability of affordable housing?”

Driven by the
democratic spirit of that well-formulated question, Miringoff et al. have been
monitoring 16 “leading social health indicators.” Their list includes
child abuse, child poverty, high school dropout rates, average weekly
earnings, unemployment, health insurance coverage, senior citizen poverty,
health insurance for the elderly, food stamp coverage, access to affordable
housing, and the gap between rich and poor. Exploring these all-too forgotten
indicators, the researchers integrate the available data to produce a combined
index of the “social well-being of American society.” In doing so, they
are less concerned with the post-modern plight of the affluent than they are
with how modern society distributes basic social and economic resources to all
of its citizens.

It’s an
interesting approach. While standard elite measures like the Index of Leading
Economic Indicators have long synthesized standard economic statistics to
report big economic changes, basic social data is rarely integrated to signal
big transformations in American social experience.

The results of
the Fordham Institute’s last report prior to the elections are anything but
sanguine about the American experience. In 1997, the last year for which
comprehensive data are available, the Institute’s Index of Social Health for
the United States declined 1.3 percent to 46 out of a possible 100. More
broadly, Miringoff reports that the social health of America in the 1990s is
far below past levels. Since 1970, the annual U.S. social health index has
stayed the same twice, improved ten times, and declined fifteen times.
Especially disturbing are Miringoff’s findings that three indicators reached
their lowest level since 1970: health insurance, food stamp coverage, and the
gap between rich and poor (the difference between the percent distribution of
aggregate income received by the top fifth and the bottom fifth of families).
Economic growth and social health, Miringoff argues, have moved in opposite
directions since the mid-1970s. “It used to be that a rising tide lifted all
boats,” he says, “but at a certain point during the 1970s, per capita
income and social health split apart.” Between 1970 and 1997, while the GDP
grew by 113 percent, the Fordham index fell by 35 percent.

there’s a master trend in Miringoff’s report it is the worsening
distribution of wealth since the 1970s, something which Miringoff sees as a
reflection partly of “the loss of steady, well-paid jobs with benefits for
less skilled, blue-collars workers.” That finding is consistent with radical
claims that the Reagan and Clinton booms have been predicated on reduced
living and working standards for millions of working people. But Miringoff is
no chronicler or theoretician of top-down class warfare. Foreswearing any
particular ideological or partisan perspective, he limits his judgment to the
fairly incontestable conclusion—one that both a Bennett and a Chomsky could
share—that “economic growth alone does not improve the quality of life of
American society.” Since the early-to-mid 1970s, writes Miringoff, “what
has occurred in the realm of economic growth has not been the same as what has
happened in the social arena. In fact the two measures are reflecting two
different aspects of American life.”

leaves it to radicals to argue (and I do) that recent capitalist expansion is
built on a deepening social recession for the non-wealthy. Tired of
America’s woefully inadequate social statistics being “kicked around like
political footballs” in the U.S., Miringoff is content to advance the cause
of improved information on the nation’s social well-being.

Two Americas

by looking at child poverty, wage rates, affordable housing, food stamps, and
distribution issues, Miringoff suggests a class-sensitive narrative, one that
is more consistent with a Marxian approach than with the Weberian tale of
post-modern disenchantment with generalized uber-prosperity. “It’s a
story,” Miringoff recently told the Tribune, “of a lot of Americans
not quite making ends meet as readily as one might think in a time of
prosperity.” The picture that emerges from Miringoff’s more social and
economic approach to American malaise is one of two very different Americas:
the rich and the poor.

Miringoff’s data helps explain the under-reported phenomenon of sadness
among the non-affluent, it may also explain some of privileged people’s more
widely advertised disenchantment. Inequality and poverty can be alienating
even for the relatively well-off, many of whom wish to live under conditions
of community health and stability that are undermined by class polarization.
“Survivor” entertained millions of TV viewers this summer, but it
doesn’t offer a particularly attractive model of daily social experience
even for people who have survived quite well in material terms. If voter
turnout is low in November, Miringoff doesn’t think it will be because
Americans are satisfied. It will be because many Americans feel that neither
party is really addressing the symptoms of declining social health.

Toward a New
Measure of Success

Fordham index needs to be broadened to include environmental measures, racism
(rigorous residential segregation indices developed by Douglass S. Massey and
Nancy A. Denton are suited for some sort of inclusion after 2000 census data
arrives), gender discrimination, incarceration rates, civic participation,
working hours (Americans are currently the most overworked people in the
industrialized world), and the disproportionate political influence exercised
by concentrated wealth (the main reason that Miringoff’s and others’
social health concerns are so largely unaddressed by policymakers). It is
disappointing that Miringoff can’t muster any data from the last two to
three years—a gap that limits his study’s political and policy impact.
Still, Miringoff and the Fordham Institute deserve major credit for making a
serious effort to produce and publicize what is in essence (declarations of
ideological nonpartisanship notwithstanding) a left alternative to the
hegemonic Index of Leading Economic Indicators and to Bennett’s reactionary
cultural measures. American policymakers and propagandists are too quick to
boast about the success and prosperity of a nation that leads the
industrialized world in child poverty and inequality.

For some time
now, every other industrialized state has published an annual social report
that takes such “non-economic” factors of basic social experience into
national account. The absence of such a report in the U.S. reflects the
relative weakness of unions and left parties and the related exaggerated
influence of Big Money in the U.S. Someday, perhaps, that will change,
permitting an expanded and otherwise updated version of the Fordham index to
enter the corridors of substantive policy discussion. In the meantime,
progressives should propose a cure for disenchanted and
authenticity-challenged members of the upper-quintile. America’s affluent
victims of post-materialist despair should become part of a local social or
environmental justice organization. By joining, say, a living-wage campaign,
they will achieve new community connectedness, challenging the alienating
Weberian tendencies of “modern” society. At the same time they will be
attacking the more Marxist indignities foisted on the entire population by a
political-economic system whose leaders refuse to acknowledge the connection
between an economic boom that disproportionately benefits the wealthy few and
a social recession that deepens the pain of so many other Americans.

Paul Street is research director at the Chicago Urban League in Chicago, IL.
His articles have appeared in the
Journal of Social History,
Dissent, In These Times, Monthly
, and Z Magazine.